How to Expand Your Horizons Through Asylee Friendships

In reconnecting with an asylee friend on a recent trip to Washington D.C., the modern church lady reflects on how her friendships with asylees have enriched her life.

Mahmoud is a soft-spoken man with thoughtful eyes that drink in the world around him. I imagine that he might not even register as he pumps gas into people’s cars or delivers their Uber Eats order. But I recognize him for what he is, a brave freedom fighter who helped usher in a more just government in Ethiopia after 27 long years of corruption and violence.

Mahmoud in Falls Church Virginia

My family hosted Mahmoud after he gained asylum in January 2017 and we have remained good friends. Mahmoud had played a role in organizing protests in Addis Ababa against the Ethiopian government’s violent crackdown on peaceful student demonstrations in the Oromo region.

We recently caught up with him at a wonderful Ethiopian restaurant, Checheho, in Falls Church, Virginia where we sat around a rainbow-hued straw Mesob table enjoying some of the best Ethiopian food I have ever eaten.   Mahmoud was excited about the new direction his home country was taking.

But as I looked at Mahmoud, I couldn’t help but think about the tremendous personal cost he paid for helping bring about this much needed change to Ethiopia. In his home city of Addis Ababa, Mahmoud was arrested, detained and tortured on three separate occasions before fleeing to the U.S. You can find a fuller version of Mahmoud’s story on the First Friends of New Jersey and New York’s website. Mahmoud had to leave behind his family and a thriving wholesale clothing business.

Mahmoud's friend Micki joined us for dinner

And he keeps paying the price to this day as he is still thousands of miles away from his loved ones. While it now appears to be safe for Mahmoud to visit, he can’t go back to Ethiopia without foregoing his hard-won US asylum and green card. One day, when he becomes a U.S. citizen, he will be able to visit Ethiopia, but that is years away. Meanwhile, he is making plans to become a long-haul truck driver, a profession in the US with more jobs than workers.

I wish more people could know Mahmoud and the other countless asylees who come to the U.S., seeking a safe haven. Everyone who I introduce to a recent asylee walks away inspired and moved by their stories. It is frankly thrilling for a New Jersey suburbanite like me to meet a brave freedom fighter like Mahmoud.

Much has been written about how immigrants make our American society stronger. I can’t add anything particularly profound about the benefits of welcoming immigrants on a societal level. But from a personal perspective, I can tell you that meeting people like Mahmoud, has been one of the most heartening and exciting experiences of my life. For me, it is such an honor to be a small part of these brave people’s lives.

Mahmoud, Church Lady and her husband at a First Friends Benefit